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Nov 4, 2022 14 min read

Commission challengers all say county business needs to be more transparent. Incumbents think it’s just fine.

Commission challengers all say county business needs to be more transparent. Incumbents think it’s just fine.
(Photo illustration by Valerie Osier)
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Will our county electeds open themselves up to greater oversight from the people or will this new-look commission continue to conduct business as usual?

In early September, RANGE Audience Editor Valerie Osier pitched a weekly civics column to help our readers keep up on the important decisions being made in public meetings on an almost daily basis in Spokane and around the county.

One of our missions here is giving everyday people the tools they need to fight for the things they believe in and hold our leaders accountable. We know this sounds sexy, but it actually just means wading through meeting agenda documents every week to figure out what is being voted on and when. Repeat this 5 or 10 times a week for all the various meetings, and it adds up to a big task for a person whose job is partially covering local government. We can’t imagine one of our neighbors running this stuff down in their free time.

There are so many meetings!

Many are just for routine business, but just as often, extremely important decisions get made and almost no one besides the members of the particular board or committee are in the room (whether in person or virtually over Zoom).

Obviously people aren’t required to show up, but we hear complaints from readers about topics we know are being discussed in these rooms. Clearly, there’s a disconnect between what people say they care about and their ability to make their opinions heard. This appears to be a feature of the current county commissioner meeting system, not a bug. Often, these meetings are not well promoted to the public, and the language used in agendas is generally vague or jargony. The civics newsletter is designed to help close that information gap.

And let’s be clear about something: we shouldn’t have to do this. Public access to participation in public governance isn’t optional. It’s been a codified right in Washington State for over 50 years. The public, and Valerie, shouldn’t have to wade through vaguely worded last minute agenda items with scant supporting documents to figure out what the heck is going on at the county.

When it comes to public boards, commissions, councils, committees and even subcommittees, Washington State law is clear that “their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”

A public board — whether elected or appointed — can’t deliberate in private. Nor can they vote in private. The reason the state legislature gave in 1971 for mandating this transparency is pretty metal:

“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

In short: if you’re a public entity, you must let the public know what you’re planning to do with our laws, policies and money with enough warning that the rest of us can let you know how we feel about any and all of it.

If it’s going to affect people’s lives, leaders must give us a chance to weigh in.

There are some exceptions to this, but very few, and the state code spends a lot of time establishing certain minimums in regard to transparency. Officials have to post the agenda for a meeting no later than 24 hours before the meeting takes place, for example, to give people adequate time to know what’s on the docket and weigh in.

Of all the meetings we’ve been tracking in the last two months, we’ve noticed that, consistently, the Spokane County Commission:

  • Publishes the least detailed agendas of any of the major bodies we cover, making what they’re even discussing unclear.
  • They have somewhat restrictive commenting rules — especially compared to Spokane City Council.
  • The meetings take place in the middle of the workday on Mondays and Tuesdays, making it hard for working people to appear in person or even via Zoom to give testimony.
  • For people who can’t attend the meetings, written testimony is taken for consent agenda items, but the cut off is Monday at noon — 26 hours before the meeting.
  • Since state law only requires 24 hours notice for agendas to be published, it’s entirely conceivable that the Commission could post or amend their agenda with new items after the window for written comment has closed.
  • The county code mandates agendas be posted by 5 pm the previous Friday for their Tuesday meetings, giving people two business days and the weekend, but we’ve found they don’t always hit that goal, which narrows the window for public comment further.

There are also significant differences between what the Commissioners tell us they allow and what the county code actually stipulates.

We asked all the candidates — incumbent and aspiring — if they thought the current rules are transparent enough, and Commissioner Al French said he believes they’ve never been better, writing, “With the implementation of a virtual meeting option, Spokane County Commissioner meetings are easier to attend and more transparent than ever before.”

Commissioner Kuney did not return two emails requesting comment even with an extended deadline, but Commissioner Josh Kerns joined French in the defense of the current policies, writing he believes “the way the County Commission conducts business is conducive to public participation and follows the guidelines of the OPMA [Open Public Meetings Act].”

“Consent agendas are posted on Fridays and not voted on until Tuesday, during that time, written comment is accepted,” he elaborated. “All Tuesday consent agenda meetings begin with an open public forum for anyone wishing to address the board, that can be done in person or on Zoom.”

While it’s true there is an open public forum at the beginning of those meetings, county code specifically states that it only lasts 15 minutes “unless extended by the chair of the board” and that people can only talk about “items of interest to the citizens of the county that are not on the agenda for that meeting” [emphasis added].

So, while Kerns is correct that an open public forum period exists at the beginning of that meeting, people are not free to comment on the actual business before the commission that day.

This is partially to save time. Consent items are usually routine pieces of business that all get voted on at once — things like approving payroll. It could grind the workings of the county to a standstill if commissioners let people get up and offer their opinions on whether or not to give people their paychecks.

But the Commissioners have been putting very non-routine things on the consent agenda lately, things we know from our reporting the people of Spokane County feel very strongly about.

On October 25, for example, a person could have gotten up at the open public forum period to express their love of native birds, but they would not have been able to offer their opinion on whether or not the County should declare a state of emergency about Camp Hope. The commissioners voted unanimously to declare the state of emergency moments later.

While this may seem like nerdy stuff, the stakes are high. The County has a massive budget and wields considerable power over our daily lives — everything from the jail system and County law enforcement to public health. As the only members guaranteed by state statute to have a place on the Spokane Regional Health District Board and the power to change its composition, the commissioners effectively control it. In January, they voted to shrink the size of the board — including removing elected representatives from Spokane City and the Valley.

Spokane City Council has a ton of power within the city, and receives ample public comment, but it has significantly less power than county commissioners. That’s because the council is a legislative body. It can pass laws and resolutions, but it isn’t charged with the execution of city government. That power, and the power to veto city council legislation, belongs to the mayor.

In the county form of government, the legislative and executive functions belong to the commissioners. So, there isn’t the same check on the commissioner power as there is in city government.  

Given that dual power, it’s hard to argue anyone has more power over everyone in our county than the Commissioners. Indeed, the only real check on commission power is public comment and potentially outcry. Without robust opportunities for public accountability and engagement, the commissioners only face consequences for their actions on election day.

For example, the commission’s recent vote to use county funds to sue the state over Camp Hope came with an eleventh hour public notice that resulted in a silent 14 seconds of public comment. We know how divided Spokane is on this issue. Adequate notice would have brought people with fiery criticisms of the suit, and potentially just as many supporters of the commissioners’ actions.

That 14 seconds of silence spoke volumes.

It’s no surprise that the incumbents who responded to our questions think the Commission is doing just fine with transparency — it’s also probably not surprising that anyone challenging them would think they’re doing a bad job. The most vociferous responses in support of better public engagement, though, were bipartisan and came from the newly created commission districts without an incumbent in contention.

We’ve published each candidate’s full responses at the bottom of this article, organized by the district they’re running in, so you can get a side-by-side sense of how the candidates vying to represent you feel about public transparency.

In District 2, both Democrat Amber Waldref and Republican Michael Cathcart wrote lengthy condemnations of current commission practices. Waldref said she would “take what is best about the Spokane City Council meeting structure and improve upon this to allow more people to interact with their County government.”

She advocated for moving meetings to the evenings and then ensuring “[i]tems of great interest to the community (i.e. emergency declarations) should be moved to the evening agenda from the consent agenda to allow for more transparency and public comment.” Waldref also believes “agenda items should be described in some detail and with attached documents to allow our community to review prior to the meeting and comments should be taken on all items up for discussion and decision.”

Cathcart — a sitting Spokane City Council member — also touted the transparency steps taken by the city council, a bipartisan effort he says he was proud to work on with former progressive Councilmember Kate Burke. Cathcart’s response was long enough to be sent as a Word Document, and included a personal story about how he had been excluded from offering public testimony on how the County planned to use American Rescue Plan (ARP) dollars. “Frustrating to be sure,” he wrote. And while the project he was advocating for got its funding, “We must always solicit and encourage public input.” (Cathcart is also the only candidate we’ve seen running transparency ads.)

Cathcart outlined six additional reforms, including a partnership with City Cable 5 to broadcast the meetings, “a broad language access requirement that better connects our diverse communities to our local government,” and development of “a voting record database, hosted on the County’s website that will easily identify how we voted (and/or how we amended) any item that comes before us.” Cathcart also advocated “aggressively promot[ing] all county meetings to the public.“

The other commission hopefuls offered answers with varying levels of detail. They all thought greater transparency was a good thing, but some had clearly thought more deeply on the topic than others. (Everyone’s full responses are below.)

Next to Cathcart and Waldref, Maggie Yates, who is running to unseat Al French in District 5, had the most specific ideas for reform. Yates worked alongside French and the other commissioners as the county law and justice administrator before leaving earlier this year.

Yates also called for clarity and timeliness in the posting of agendas “and that adequate detail is included so members of the public and media can easily understand what may or may not be discussed during a particular meeting.”

“This would include ending the practice of using the ‘Miscellaneous’ agenda item to discuss a plethora of otherwise unnoticed topics,” she writes, citing a practice we’ve noticed at RANGE, one that has hampered our efforts to get timely, accurate information about county affairs to our readers.

In less than a week, the County Commission will look very different than the one we have today, with nearly twice as many representatives governing from within redrawn district boundaries. There will probably be at least one Democrat on the Commission for the first time in 12 years, and potentially as many as three.

The question that is still very much up for grabs, though, is whether our county electeds will open themselves up to greater oversight from the only real check they have — the people — or if this new-look commission will continue to conduct business as usual.

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CANDIDATE RESPONSES:

(* denotes incumbent)

DISTRICT 1

Chris Jordan

To answer your question - no.  I believe the County can do a better job with transparency.  I’d like to take a look at the meeting times and consider moving them to a time of day when more working people can attend.  I believe we need more detailed budget information posted online at the County.  Opportunities for public comment should be more accessible - particularly when matters of significant public concern arise such as the example you mentioned in your email.  

I also believe we need to ensure agendas are out ahead of meetings, and are sufficiently detailed so members of the public can make an informed decision as to whether they want to give input.  We can do better and I’ll push for more transparency if elected.

Kim Plese

I believe that public participation is key to a well functioning democracy and as a Commissioner, I will ensure it’s easy for the public to access our meetings. I would not be opposed to moving the time of the meetings if elected!

DISTRICT 2

Michael Cathcart

Democracy cannot survive behind closed doors, nor can it survive inaccessible government decision making. Open government is the only way voters can effectively hold our politicians and institutions accountable. This is a high priority!

One of the more important and quite pertinent provisions of Washington State law is RCW 42.30.010 in declaring that,

the people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed and informing the people's public servants of their views so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

Unfortunately, this provision has become a sentiment that elites within our government institutions simply ignore.

My City Council track record is clear and includes frequently pushing for more community input and engagement. I have worked diligently with others on the council, including fmr. Councilwoman Kate Burke, to advocate for several rule changes that enabled more public input and access. Some of the changes include:

·  providing the public with the ability to testify during the first reading of ordinances and on our consent agenda (neither had ever been done before).

·  removing some of the open forum limitations that restricted comment

·  requiring all committee meetings (not just full Council meetings) to be archived and streamed online.

I am proud of the advocacy and work I have done on behalf of transparency as a member of the Spokane City Council and I will double down on those efforts as a member of the Spokane County Commission.

Regarding where I know County government can improve, let me share a personal experience as one example. Earlier this year, I was advocating for the County to partner with us at the city through a financial investment in a NE Behavioral Health project that will soon be occupying the old Hillyard library. At the time, this request was to come from ARPA (American Rescue Plan) dollars. I was told that the County’s process did not include in-person testimony on ARPA requests. Frustrating to be sure. The County did support the project, and I’m very grateful. However, this highlights a simple example of where my broader views on transparency can greatly benefit County processes going forward.

We must always solicit and encourage public input.

Additional changes I am very interested in pursuing as a County Commissioner include:

· REQUIRE all Commissioner meetings, committee meetings, and other relevant county business meetings to be open to the public, streamed live and archived for public viewing.

I am very interested in developing a partnership between City Cable 5 and the Spokane County Commission to develop a one stop shop for accessing all local government meetings.

·   IMPLEMENT a broad language access requirement that better connects our diverse communities to our local government officials, departments, and programs. This would be similar to the policy I helped champion at the City of Spokane. Everyone deserves access to their government regardless of language barriers.

·   DEVELOP a voting record database, hosted on the County’s website that will easily identify how we voted (and/or how we amended) any item that comes before us.

·   ESTABLISH a highly searchable public database of all legislation voted upon by the Spokane County Commissioners.

·   ENSURE all Committee Agendas and documents and all Board of County Commissioner Agendas and documents are timely posted, easily located online, searchable, and made understandable to the public. Late additions (out of urgent necessity) need to be highlighted.

·   AGGRESSIVELY PROMOTE all County Meetings to the public. Sharing how to attend or watch, how to participate, and how to track our activities.

There can be no government accountability without public access. We need to always be shining a light and that’s what I’ll do. 

Amber Waldref

No, I do not believe the current commission meeting structure/materials/marketing do enough to engage County residents, businesses and those impacted by County decisions in the public process of decision-making.

I would take what is best about the Spokane City Council meeting structure and improve upon this to allow more people to interact with their County government. County Commission meetings should be held during the evenings to allow for working people to participate either in person or over Facebook Live/zoom/other platforms. Items of great interest to the community (i.e. emergency declarations) should be moved to the evening agenda from the consent agenda to allow for more transparency and public comment. Agenda items should be described in some detail and with attached documents to allow our community to review prior to the meeting and comments should be taken on all items up for discussion and decision. Filming or live streaming of meetings.

Partly, the issue is improving the meeting structure and accessibility of information and creating opportunity for engagement. The other part is electing Commissioners who desire to share information and engage diverse members of our community. I'm committed to continuing what I did on City Council - posting a weekly or biweekly blog that communicates about upcoming decisions and why I voted the way I did at each meeting -- sharing this over social media and website -- and being accessible to the community for meetings/discussions/public coffee chats at local businesses.

DISTRICT 3

Josh Kerns *

Yes, I feel the way the County Commission conducts business is conducive to public participation and follows the guidelines of the OPMA. To pass an ordinance, a public hearing is required. To pass a resolution, it is not. We give the opportunity to provide written comments on the consent agenda items that are not public hearing items. Consent agendas are posted on Fridays and not voted on until Tuesday, during that time, written comment is accepted. All Tuesday consent agenda meetings begin with an open public forum for anyone wishing to address the board, that can be done in person or on Zoom. All of our meetings are live on Zoom for viewing or open to the public to attend in person if they choose. All the Zoom recordings are uploaded to the County's YouTube channel for anyone who was unable to watch it live.

All of our processes are in line with the changes to the OPMA that went into effect earlier this year.

Also, I'm always available via email, phone, or in person meetings for anyone that wants to discuss any County business.

Bill Schreiner

The current Spokane County Commissioner public meeting structure is unexceptionable and should be addressed by the next 5 commissioners 2023.

Each district commissioner should have a town hall meeting every two months!

Each new district Commissioner should have their working space and office at the district public works building in all 5 districts and be available. This will keep it simple and no new expenses at the current location.

DISTRICT 4

Mary Kuney *

Did not respond

Paul Brian Noble

The simple [answer] is No.

No the current time and structure is not conducive to civic participation, the principles of Washington State’s Open Public Meetings rules and American democracy more broadly.

DISTRICT 5

Al French *

With the implementation of a virtual meeting option, Spokane County Commissioner meetings are easier to attend and more transparent than ever before. My record is clear, I have been a champion for transparency, including open public negotiations so that taxpayers and union members know what is being negotiated for in union contracts, the largest expenditure for the country and taxpayers.

Maggie Yates

Based on my experience working at the County and the concerns raised by residents in District 5, I know there is much work to do to improve government transparency, as well as public access and participation.  These efforts are necessary not only to remain consistent with the letter and spirit of Washington’s OPMA, but to also engage members of the public in local government, allowing them to hold elected officials accountable and contribute to meaningful policy improvements.

As County Commissioner, I would support holding meetings outside of regular business hours (and some in my District) in order to facilitate public attendance and increased public comment. I would also ensure that meeting agendas are properly noticed and that adequate detail is included so members of the public and media can easily understand what may or may not be discussed during a particular meeting.  This would include ending the practice of using the “Miscellaneous” agenda item to discuss a plethora of otherwise unnoticed topics. Finally, I would remain open to incorporating feedback from members of the media and the public to ensure that the Board of County Commissioners shares information and updates in a timely, accessible and understandable manner.

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